When the Dodgers began their regular season campaign last year, starting pitching was at such a premium that the best five pitchers on the club weren’t even in the Opening Day rotation. Lefty phenom Julio Urias began the year in extended spring training in an effort to conserve innings, while southpaw Alex Wood was forced to start his year in the big league bullpen. There was also a ton of marginal depth with arms like Brock Stewart and Trevor Oaks on the fringe, and experienced guys like Justin Masterson, Wilmer Font, Fabio Castillo and Jair Jurrjens providing depth at Triple-A Oklahoma City. There was even hope for Scott Kazmir to join the major league rotation at some point, once his ailing hip healed and he sharpened his throwing mechanics.
The beginning of the 2018 season is shaping up differently, at least at the present juncture. As it stands now, we all know the projected starting rotation. Resident ace Clayton Kershaw is the headliner, flanked by fellow left-handers Rich Hill, Wood and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Righty Kenta Maeda will be smack dab in the middle of that grouping somewhere, likely as the No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
Many pundits believe that rookie Walker Buehler will conceivably get the call should the need arise, with Stewart being a secondary option. However, should there be a crunch on the 25-man roster early, newly acquired swing man Tom Koehler could potentially garner his fair share of starts, especially if management decides to put Buehler on some type of innings limit program to save him for later in the year.
Koehler is no stranger to a big league rotation. In 2016, he posted a 9-13 record with a 4.33 ERA and 147 punchouts after logging 176-2/3 innings over 33 starts, but his most productive year in the bigs was probably 2014, when he registered a 10-10 record with a 3.81 ERA and a 3.84 FIP with 153 strikeouts over 32 starts and 191-1/3 innings. Last year, between the Marlins and the Blue Jays combined, the he made 27 appearances—13 of which were starts—before being shifted exclusively to the bullpen for the stretch run of the season.
Koehler’s contract for the upcoming year is loaded with all kinds of incentives and performance-based bonuses, but the one that jumps out the most is the money he can earn for starts. He could rake in up to $1 million altogether for games started—$250,000 each for 10, 15, 20 or 25 starts. Quite the hefty chunk of change for a $2 million base salary. There’s a good chance that Koehler will be stretched out adequately during Cactus League play, and fans shouldn’t be surprised if he’s moved into the starting rotation in the event of an early injury.
Many followers of the Dodgers still believe that the club should upgrade the starting pitching department, but there haven’t been any signs of potential acquisitions. There are still whispers about the team having discussions with free agent righty Yu Darvish, but if the front office was indeed intent on adding another arm, the best bet could have been dealing for Gerrit Cole, who is set to make only $6.75 million in 2018, and was snagged by the Astros for a handful of marginal prospects, at best. There are a few decent starting pitchers remaining on the free agent market; however, all indications from GM Farhan Zaidi suggest the team may be content with the pitchers they have in-house.
“There’s a high bar for us,” Zaidi explained recently. “We can’t just go out and add average players and expect to improve a 104-win team. It’s a delicate balance, and I think one of the things we’re trying to make sure of is creating some continuity with a team that had so much success last year, and let’s just try to add around the edges if we can.”
So, as far as the depth goes for starting pitchers, Koehler could be the highest on the depth chart, followed by Stewart. And if all goes well for Buehler in the early goings of his campaign, there could be a shot he’s cemented in the big league rotation to stay by the summer months.
Nevertheless, if we look at things from another angle, it wouldn’t be surprising if Andrew Friedman and his troops make one or two signings to bolster the Triple-A starting pitching depth, similar to the roles that Masterson, Font and Castillo played last year. Or, for all we know, Koehler may actually transition into the super-reliable eighth-inning guy which Dodger fans crave, while somebody like Dennis Santana, Yadier Alvarez or Mitchell White emerges from the depths of the farm to make a major league impact in some shape or form.
Either way, fans can be assured that by season’s end the Dodgers will have a top-notch product on the diamond in a quest to haul in their sixth-straight NL West divisional crown.